The nineteenth century Swahili poet Sheik Abdallah (d. 1820), wrote a poem called ‘Song of Liyongo’, in five-line stanzas, in which the first three lines of each stanza were his own work, while the closing two lines were by Liyongo, as recorded in the oral tradition. In the version presented here, the closing lines of each stanza are presented separately, without Sheik Abdallah’s additions.

They are coherent and eloquent on their own, and are probably the oldest ‘text’ presented on this website. There are other poems referring to ancient rulers and events, and transmitted orally. But they were not recorded before the late 19C.

The reference to fetters in lines 21-22 suggest the poem dates from when Liyongo was imprisoned. For Liyongo, the legendary Swahili hero, see ‘The Legend of Liyongo.

Oh ! much, much, I begin with many, as well as going forward to finish, child of good things. (1)
Child, do you see your goat in the pathway, its horns held and a milker milking it?
My child, do you see his vileness standing, without his consenting to die, and the regrets that follow?
He who strives for his rank, having rank, strives against wrong after wrong, until his soul meets its fate.
I melt like wax when I am held, I melt exceedingly, I am bad like war when I hear evil speaking.
I am bold, and love the acceptance of death, for fear of disgrace and of the enemy’s speaking ill of me.
I am a young lion who loves the acceptance of death, for fear of disgrace and of the enemies seeing me retreat.
I am a young falcon, I am not seen when I pounce, (2)
the evil bird that preys upon the flock.
I am like a young vulture, who shares with the wild beasts, (3)
and they that eat grass in the valleys and hills.
Would that I were an eagle flying in the air, eating small animals, even to the lion, chief of the beasts.
But both my feet are in fetters, and on my neck I wear a chain of iron.
The boiling of the water roars in the deep sea, you cannot stand where the wave dashes over Ungama. (4)
Let not your heart hesitate to surprise your victim, and if you kill not your enemies they will eat flesh. (5)
Then when you perceive the fire of war roaring, la Allah! it is I who light as well as extinguish it.
I draw myself together and cast myself among the bad, and I slaughter a slaughtering and satiate my heart.
Fear not their arrow nor their shining spears, there are many who strike down, and turn and come back again.
How many that feared in war have fallen, and those that stood firm have got through safely.
He meets with destitution and confusion and vileness by fearing for his life, and his end comes to remove him.
The lion cries with a cry, roaring out a great cry which brings pity home to a man.
The great male lion strives for his object and his rank, he strives for his object till his eyes are closed. (6)
I fear not their bows and spears that shine, many are they who are cast down, and who flee and go backward.
I fear not their thousands, I alone it is who am myself a thousand by being brave.
I make my breast my shield; where they are pressed together I divide them,
without fearing the thorns or prickles to prick me.
Dying is of God, and the snare that takes him, not of the men of this world,
though a thousand arrows should pierce you.
They are not lions with tails, and hair growing on the neck and back,
but lions are heroes, who have nothing to do with the skins of beasts.
He will get a reward, which the bountiful Lord will pay him when the days are accomplished for repaying bad and good.

Here is the Swahili text, Liyongo sifa Mwenyewe. Note that the final word of each line rhymes throughout.

Ai wanji wanji nazawanji kisiza wanji; ma kadiliza kasiliza, mwanangwa mema.
Mwanangwa mbonaye mbuzi wako katika mwendo; uki-metwa pembe na mkami akimkamaa.
Mwanangwa mbonaje muhakara wakwe wiimile; asirathi kufa na mayuto yakaya nyuma.
Mtetea cheo mwenyi cheo ateteapo; hambiwi ni nawi hatta roho nengakoma.
Ni mwofu wa ta nishikapo na oa mno; ni mui wa kondo sikiapo mbi kalima.
Ni mwana shajighi mpendeza nyemi za kufa; kwa kucha mpeo na adui wa kunisema.
Ni mwana asadi mpendeza nyemi za kufa; kwa kucha mpeo na adui kumbuya nyuma.
Ninga mana kozi sioneki niwakuapo; ni mui wa nyuni naakua katika jama.
Ninga mana taya shirikeni na mana tope; na mlisha yani lenyi tani na zingulima.
Ningali kipungu niushile katika anga; kila nyama toto hatta simba mkuu nyama.
Bali muu yangu yu mawili kuwa pinguni; na shingoni mwangu nawishiwa peto la chuma.
Tufutufu mayi kizimbwini yawanguruma; ha’mwezi kwima luishapo wimbi Ungama.
Sipepese moyo kupepesa kwa uuwayo; mtawapoua aduizo wakula nyama.
Pindi uonapo moto zita ukinguruma; la Allah, ni mimi niwashao maa kazima.
Naikutakuta kayatia katika wawi; katinda kitinda ari-thisha wangu mtima.
Siche mata yao na mafumo yanganawiri; mangi mafumati na magao maoya nyuma.
Wangapi wachao utamboni wangamiao; na wazimbiao utamboni wakisiama.
Akuta mpeo na hizaya na muhakara; kwa kuchea roho na mwisoe yaja kutama.
Simba uwalia kwa kilio akivumiza; kilio kikuu kifishacho mtu huruma.
Simba bora ndume watetea jaha na cheo; watetea jaha hatta mato yakafunama.
Sichi mata zao na mafumo yanganawiri; mangi mafumati na magao mawi ya nyuma.
Sichi kikwi chao nami ume ndio nilio moyo wangu kikwi kwa ajili ya kushagama.
Kifa tenda ngao paziwapo kipazua; nisikhofu miwa wala tome za kunitoma.
Kufa kwa Muungu na shabuka limkutao; si kwa wali-mwengu mivi kikwi ingakufuma.
Si simba mikia wameao vuzi na singa; simba mashujaa wasabili ngozi na nyama.
Wapata ajira kumlipa Mola karimu; siku ya majaza wali-pwapo wawi na wema.

adapted from Edward Steere,
Swahili Tales (London, 1871), 456-464


Footnotes

  1. The poem is addressed to a child, probably his son, and the meaning of the opening words is that he is overwhelmed by how much he has to say.
  2. A falcon in stoop seems to appear from nowhere.
  3. The vulture eats carcases, as do jackals and other creatures.
  4. Ungama: A bay on the Kenyan coast, between Malindi and Lamu.
  5. They will kill you in turn. Victory, in African poems, is often expressed as “devouring the enemy”, which has given rise to many misunderstandings.
  6. Until death.